Atlanta's Legal Community: Serving As A Shield For The Weak

Thursday, April 1, 2004 - 01:00

The Editor interviews The Honorable Roy E. Barnes, former Governor of Georgia, and Partner, The Barnes Law Group, LLC.

Editor:You are known as a man of strength and character who stands up for matters of principle, even in the face of political risk. Please tell us about your dedication to public service.

Barnes: I believe we all have a responsibility as citizens to give back to our community through public service.This is especially true of lawyers because of the special place we have held in the history of our nation.So, public service to me is just a part of being a good citizen.

Editor: Describeyourcareerasapublicservant.

Barnes: My heart, as well as my home, has always been in Georgia. I was educated through the public schools of Cobb County and earned my baccalaureate and law degrees at the University of Georgia. Following graduation, I served in the district attorney's office in Cobb County for a few years and then founded a firm that had about 10 or 12 lawyers. We did a mixture of everything - malpractice defense work, corporate litigation and the corporate work for most of the hospitals in the area. In 1974, I was elected to the state senate and continued to serve as a state senator for 16 years. In 1992 I successfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and then served three more terms. I was elected governor in 1998.

Following my term as governor, I served as a full-time volunteer at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. Now in private practice, my office is in Marietta.

Editor:Could you tell us about Atlanta's legal community?

Barnes: A vibrant international business community, Atlanta is the capital of the new South. Reflecting the tremendous growth of our region, several of our local firms have expanded nationwide and globally. King & Spalding LLP, Alston & Bird LLP, McKenna Long & Alridge LLP and Kilpatrick Stockton LLP are just a few examples. The many national firms that have come here include Jones Day and Duane Morris LLP.

Editor:Atlanta has an outpouring of philanthropically minded lawyers. Would you like to give an example or two of how the Atlanta law firms support the community?

Barnes: Lawyers in the Atlanta community - both as individuals and collectively as law firms and corporate law departments - are, indeed, very philanthropic. One example is King & Spalding, a nationally acclaimed firm that originated here in Atlanta, that participates with Atlanta Legal Aid. One of their programs helps those that have dispossessories filed against them, many times public housing residents with few resources.

A second example is Kilpatrick Stockton, another Atlanta firm with a well-earned national reputation. Its Grandparents Adoption Program helps children who are being raised by their grandparents. By providing the legal services needed for adoption by the grandparents, the firm helps to keep the children in a stable environment. Should the parents show up later, they cannot take the children away without any legal hearings.

A third example is McKenna Long & Alridge, another nationally acclaimed firm that originated here in Atlanta. One of its partners, Phillip A. Bradley, chairs the Advisory Board of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.

Those are three examples. The whole legal community here in Atlanta is committed to serving those less fortunate through a myriad of pro bono programs.

Editor:Why do you encourage lawyers to become involved in pro bono work?

Barnes: Pro bono work is part of the public contract that we have as lawyers. Practicing law is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. In consideration for being granted the exclusive right to charge for legal services, we have the responsibility to provide legal services for those who cannot afford lawyers and have meritorious cases. If we do not fulfill that responsibility, then I suggest that we have lost a part of what we are as lawyers.

Editor:Can you give examples of some pro bono projects that will welcome support of corporate counsel?

Barnes: Corporate counsel many times feel that they are not adequately prepared to deal with some of the problems that exist with pro bono clients. That is not true. In fact, they are very well suited. Yes, they may not have prior experience with predatory lending, family law or other pro bono matters, but with the support of Atlanta Legal Aid, that is easy to overcome. Corporate counsel are very bright with a wealth of analytic and counseling experience. They can learn quickly.

Some of the cases that corporate counsel could handle would benefit from in-house skills. Examples include all types of contract and lending disputes, particularly where clients are overcharged for their interest or for a long period. Corporate counsel with their extensive knowledge of corporate contract issues and understanding things like unconscionability are well suited to help assist in some of these matters.

Editor: Where can readers learn more about pro bono projects in Atlanta?

Barnes: Among the many wonderful organizations supporting pro bono projects in Atlanta are the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation and the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. They build relationships to provide a clearinghouse for connecting lawyers with clients who seek legal help to deal with some of life's most basic needs - a safe home, enough food to eat, a decent education, protection against fraud and personal safety.

Editor:How has your pro bono work affected you?

Barnes: I would encourage every lawyer to give back because when we give back we help not only ourselves but also our profession and not to mention those whom we represent and how we change their lives for the better. Through my pro bono work, I've seen people victimized every day because other people thought they could get away with it. I came to a strong belief that the law should be a shield for the weak and not a club for the strong. This has affected the way that I now view every case and every client I undertake to represent.

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